The history of Portsmouth's Christmas fires

Three devastating blazes in 11 years transformed Portsmouth into the city it is today




What are the chances — three fires just a few years apart, all at Christmas?

The first was in 1802, on December 26; the second, in 1806 on December 24 and the third, in 1813 on December 22. No sooner had the city begun to rebuild, twice, when flames once again leveled it.

The 1802 fire started the day after Christmas in an old wooden house near Market Square. It roared through the city, destroying more than 100 buildings. Most property owners had no insurance; private charity provided the only relief. As a result, the NH Fire and Marine Insurance Company was incorporated.

Four years later, on Christmas Eve, a row of wooden commercial buildings along the river began to burn, having started in a poorly insulated hearth. Flames destroyed all of the buildings along the river, plus the historic St. John's Church, built of wood in 1732.

Property damage totaled $130,000, $6.5 million in today's dollars.

The 1813 fire — called "the Great Portsmouth Fire" — was the worst of them. It broke out near Court and Pleasant Streets and engulfed everything from there to the river. The blaze could be seen as far away as as Salem, Mass. Fifteen city acres and 108 buildings were destroyed. The insurance company, established after the first fire, went bankrupt.

A year later the Legislature passed the Brick Act, which required that all new city buildings more than 12 feet high be built of brick. As a result, today the central part of the city, north of Court Street, is mostly brick. — Source: cityofportsmouth.com

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